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    Representation in climate change negotiations

    By Vanesa Castan- Broto, on 7 December 2011

    Climate change negotiations in Durban

    Since the 28th of November the COP17[1] meets in Durban, South Africa. This is the main annual climate change event in the world and it is characterized by a frenzy of activity both in international diplomatic negotiations and side events. The history of the COP can be told as a story of diplomatic achievement. Its most significant result, the Kyoto Protocol, is an international agreement adopted in 1997 and ratified in 2005, which “sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” and establishes market-based mechanisms to facilitate low carbon development strategies in less developed countries. In parallel to negotiations, diverse fringe activities animate the COP meeting, both raising the profile of climate change issues among heterogeneous public and inspiring different forms of collective action to tackle the challenge.

    ↑ Photo by: Oxfam international

    However, every year, as the COP approaches, one acquires a sense of dread and frustration. Every year the challenges of climate change seem more pressing than ever. Scientific analysts continue to mount evidence of dangerous climate change impacts, which will ensue the seemingly unstoppable growth of carbon emissions. Moreover, international development organizations warn that climate change has already affected the lives of many vulnerable people, especially in poor nations that lack that institutions or resources to prevent or ameliorate its impacts. And yet, every year, the expectations of the international negotiations seem smaller. There is still no agreement about what will follow the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. The conference in Copenhagen in 2009 made it clear that, for the main players, the goal of reaching a “legally binding” agreement such as Kyoto was off the agenda. The Copenhagen Accord, drafted by five countries (US, China, Brasil, India and South Africa) only committed to voluntary pledges. After the relatively low key event last year in Cancun, characterized by a lack of leadership, this years’ conference started amidst claims that bullying and bribing where common tactics used by industrialized countries to force developing countries to adopt the Copenhagen accord (arguably in an attempt to neutralize developing countries associating in a powerful multi-country group which could hinder their interests).[2] This year the contributions of the COP to collective efforts to prevent and/or mitigate the climate change crisis are more uncertain than ever. Is this poor state of affairs due exclusively to the obscure maneuvers of certain nations, or rather, is this the only possible result given the nature of these negotiations?

    Climate change and nation states

    At the COP, negotiations take place between nation states. Climate change is now part of a broad spectrum of international environmental issues, which are dealt with in a multilateral fashion, albeit one that has gained prominence beyond the political sphere. However, the realities of climate change do not respect administrative and political barriers. Climate change is by definition a global phenomenon. Its consequences are not confined to geographical regions, let alone to nation states. The long drought this summer in east Africa, which has resulted in a severe food crisis affecting millions of people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia, is a compelling example of the boundless nature of climate change, not only in terms of its impacts but also regarding its consequences. Millions of people have moved across the regions raising political tensions across borders.

    On the other hand, the biggest challenge to nation-states pertains to the political economy of a nation-state based political system. Tensions emerge not only between countries, but also, within countries. Do nation-states actually represent the people they say they represent? In Europe and America, new social movements such as the Occupy movement dispute the unquestionable nature of representative democracy. Without challenging the political system itself, questions of nationhood also emerge when social identities and livelihoods of social groups are not easily confined to the territories delimited by national boundaries or conflict with what is perceived as the national interest. Last week the Observer reported that nomadic pastoralists in Uganda were threatened not only by the increased frequency of droughts in east Africa but also by the pressure of Ugandan policies to make the nomads settle.[3] In this case, the nation state is not only ineffective or even harmful to address their climate-related vulnerabilities, but also, it does not represent them in international negotiations. As extreme weather events intensify, climate change related migration and political conflicts will also increase. This can only step up the pressure over policy mechanisms grounded on the nation state ideals challenging the appropriateness of this political arrangement to deal with global environmental challenges.

    Can we move beyond nation states in taking climate change action?

    Finding solutions at the local level has been a strategy for many actors who feel dissatisfied with the slow progress of national climate change action (or lack of thereof). For example, a popular climate change event which preceded the 2010 COP in Cancun was the World Mayors Council for Climate Change, where mayors not only boasted about what their cities do for climate change but also they tried to coordinate their action through the Mexico City Pact which created a Carbon City Climate Registry at the Bonn Centre for Local Climate Action and Reporting.[4] The increase saliency of city networks that promote and enable climate change action in cities around the world, such as the C40 supported by the Clinton Foundation or ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability just to name a few, shows not only potential for coordination but also the germen of new forms of global environmental governance. Moreover, there is evidence of action taken at the local level including community groups and civil society organizations who get their hands dirty in energy efficiency strategies and microgeneration projects or private companies whose operations are now shaped by attempts to future proofing their businesses. However, while localized initiatives may change societal visions and expectations, they are not specifically intended to mediate a global agreement with obligations for emissions reductions and mechanisms to guarantee the safety of the poorest and most vulnerable populations.

    But how can global environmental governance move beyond the constraints of nation states negotiations? International organizations such as those embedded in the United Nations system depend on the wishes of their members, nation states, and thus reproduce multilateral negotiations systems such as those in the COP. International NGOs, who have made great efforts to raise awareness and resources across countries, are not meant to represent society as a whole, but rather, they represent specific values or interests in society, and cannot negotiate on behalf of broader publics. International grassroots movements, such as Shack/Slum Dwellers International,[5] represent their members directly and have had a great impact in evictions and slum upgrading. They can also have a definitive impact on implementing action to build in resilience and protect vulnerable people, but emissions reduction is down the bottom of their priority list (even though there is an important argument to relate climate change responsibilities with urban inequalities which co-evolve within the same economic system).

     ↑ Photo by: Oxfam international

    In this landscape, I wonder how the excluded and the disempowered could be effectively represented in climate change negotiations. For some anxious commentators it seems that climate change can only be addressed by displacing political struggles and pass on the power to the experts (so that experts become the sole depositors of the world’s hopes). For others, the urgency of this challenge may require solutions overlooking the diversity of cultures, values and opinions, which characterize human life across regions. These are, of course, unacceptable routes. Instead, one would seek to find solace in the maxim that unprecedented challenges require matching unprecedented action. Action will no doubt build upon the bottomless enthusiasm and commitment that organizations and communities show in relentless action for climate change; in persuasive fantasies about finding the ultimate win-win design or technology solution; and in the creative redefinition of social movements and their impact through the rise of social media. In conclusion, it seems that the most vulnerable people lack a voice in Durban. In my view, a just sustainable future will not be achieved in a forum like Durban but in multiple actions for climate change which take place regardless of the success of international negotiations.


    [1] The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations
    Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 7th Session of the
    Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties (CMP7) to
    the Kyoto Protocol.
    [2] A report for the charity the World Development Movement by Ronnie Hall
    analysed wikileaks cables and other documents (Hall, R. (2011) The end game
    in Durban? How developed countries bullied and bribed to try to kill Kyoto)
    [3] Vidal, J. (2010) Uganda: nomads face an attack on their way of life,
    The Observer, Sunday 27 November 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment
    [4] The city register is hosted at http://carbonn.org/
    [5] See http://www.sdinet.org/